The world’s second-largest democratic exercise is complete and the results are not pretty for the so-called ‘leaders of Europe’.

The parties of Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz, who are at the helm of the EU’s two largest and most powerful countries, suffered major defeats to right-wing and conservative groups. 

Such a defeat unquestionably undermines their rule at home – so much so that the French president last night called a snap election in a move resembling a bloodied boxer on the ropes preparing to throw a final desperate punch before suffering a knockout blow.

Meanwhile in Germany, Scholz’s rivals declared the elections results a ‘disaster’ for the Chancellor’s government which since coming to power in 2019 has presided over a litany of crises. 

Scholz’s ruling Social Democrats recorded their worst post-World War II result in a nationwide vote with 13.9% – behind the surging far-right AfD party and the conservative, Christian centre-right alliance. 

Over the last five years, the EU has been shaken by the coronavirus pandemic, an economic slump and an energy crisis fuelled by Russia’s war in Ukraine – issues that populist candidates leveraged to great effect in their election campaigns. 

Europe’s centrist elements were rewarded this weekend and remain the de facto power brokers on the continent, having increased their overall share of the seats in Europe’s parliament.

But the surge by right-wing populist parties will make it much harder for the assembly to approve legislation on issues ranging from climate change to agriculture policy between now and 2029, and will likely see support for tougher immigration controls.

The French President last night called a snap election amid his party's drubbing in EU elections

The French President last night called a snap election amid his party’s drubbing in EU elections

A dejected German Chancellor Olaf Scholz reacts at the SPD's election party for the European elections, in Berlin Sunday, June 9, 2024

A dejected German Chancellor Olaf Scholz reacts at the SPD’s election party for the European elections, in Berlin Sunday, June 9, 2024

National Rally parliamentary party leader Marine Le Pen smiles after a speech at the electoral party of the French right-wing party National Rally (Rassemblement National or RN) in Paris

National Rally parliamentary party leader Marine Le Pen smiles after a speech at the electoral party of the French right-wing party National Rally (Rassemblement National or RN) in Paris

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni posts a 'V for victory' snap on social media following stellar European election results for her Fratelli d'Italia party

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni posts a ‘V for victory’ snap on social media following stellar European election results for her Fratelli d’Italia party

The euro dropped to its lowest price in nearly a month after Emmanuel Macron's announcement that he was dissolving the French National Assembly and calling a snap election

The euro dropped to its lowest price in nearly a month after Emmanuel Macron’s announcement that he was dissolving the French National Assembly and calling a snap election

Nightmare for the Titans of Europe

For Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz, these elections were nothing short of disastrous. 

The centrist Renaissance party of Macron, who casts himself as a stalwart of democracy and European cooperation – not to mention a staunch supporter of Ukraine –  came a distant second to the far-right National Rally (RN), which stormed to victory and scooped 30 of France’s 81 seats. 

Macron’s defeat was to be expected – polls ahead of the weekend’s elections projected a significant loss for the Renaissance party, though the final results delivered an even greater share of the vote for the RN. 

But the French President’s immediate reaction to election result blindsided commentators and analysts across the continent. 

In a national address late last night, Macron announced a snap election – a move described by French media as a ‘poker play – as risky as it is unexpected’ that will send the electorate to the polls again in just three weeks’ time. 

‘I cannot act as if nothing had happened,’ Macron said in recognition of Renaissance’s losses, telling the nation: ‘I have decided to give you the choice.’ 

He added that calling a snap election only underlines his democratic credentials. 

The RN’s Marine Le Pen declared her party was ‘ready to take power’ should the French people desire it. 

‘We’re ready to turn the country around, ready to defend the interests of the French, ready to put an end to mass immigration,’ she said, echoing the rallying cry of far-right leaders in other countries who today will be celebrating their substantial wins. 

Two rounds of voting, set for June 30 and July 7, will not see Macron’s position as president at stake as France’s presidential and parliamentary elections are separate. 

But Macron’s final three years in power will be miserable if his own party loses out to the RN, with the president forced to ‘cohabit’ with a party likely to oppose any policy he sets forth. 

In the event of an RN victory in July, French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal – often described as a mini-Macron – would be replaced by arch rival Marine Le Pen, or her 28-year-old protégé Jordan Bardella. 

Macron’s decision to call a snap election prompted the euro to drop to its lowest price in nearly a month amid the political uncertainty. 

In Germany meanwhile, the coalition government of Scholz has presided over a period of extreme turbulence, and as such the Chancellor’s party – the Social Democrats (SPD) – was expected to slip in this weekend’s elections.

Polls in the run-up to the elections had projected a bitter fight between the SPD and the far-right AfD party for second place behind the conservative CDU/CSU. 

But the AfD, despite being plagued by a series of scandals in recent months, separated itself and finished with 16% of the vote, leaving Scholz’s SPD languishing in third place with less than 14%.

The result prompted the president of the victorious CDU to declare Scholz had suffered a ‘disaster’ and ‘severe defeat’ that reflected a desperate need for a ‘change of policy’.

And speculation is mounting that the volatile three-party coalition could collapse before Germany’s next election. 

‘After all the prophecies of doom, after the barrage of the last few weeks, we are the second-strongest force,’ a jubilant AfD leader Alice Weidel said. 

Emmanuel Macron

Olaf Scholz

The political sentiments in France and Germany, the EU’s two largest and most powerful members, tended towards more right-wing, conservative candidates, with the parties of Emmanuel Macron (L) and Olaf Scholz (R) losing out

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his wife, Britta Ernst, are pictured in Berlin amid EU elections yesterday

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his wife, Britta Ernst, are pictured in Berlin amid EU elections yesterday

A content Jordan Bardella, president of the French far-right National Rally, is seen at the party election night headquarters after French President Emanuel Macron announced he dissolves National Assembly and calls new legislative election after defeat in EU vote, Sunday, June 9, 2024 in Paris

A content Jordan Bardella, president of the French far-right National Rally, is seen at the party election night headquarters after French President Emanuel Macron announced he dissolves National Assembly and calls new legislative election after defeat in EU vote, Sunday, June 9, 2024 in Paris

Italy's Prime Minister and leader of the far-right party Brothers of Italy (Fratelli D'Italia - FDI) Giorgia Meloni getures during a press conference following the results of the European Elections in Rome on June 10, 2024

Italy’s Prime Minister and leader of the far-right party Brothers of Italy (Fratelli D’Italia – FDI) Giorgia Meloni getures during a press conference following the results of the European Elections in Rome on June 10, 2024

A damaged election poster shows German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Frankfurt, Germany, Sunday, June 9, 2024

A damaged election poster shows German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Frankfurt, Germany, Sunday, June 9, 2024

Europe leans to the right, but the centre holds

It was not only France and Germany whose electorates delivered a considerable boost to right-wing parties. 

Austria’s far-right Freedom party and Hungary’s Fidesz party both romped to victory over their rivals – though Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz was not as dominant compared to its huge victory in 2019 – while Italian Prime Minister Giorgio Meloni consolidated her status as one of the rising stars of European politics.

Her Brothers of Italy party extended its influence, winning more than a quarter of the vote.  

But the success of the right in this year’s elections is limited by a lack of unity, with several of the leading parties split among different political groups.

For example, Germany’s AfD was until recently part of Europe’s Identity and Democracy (ID) group, the largest conglomerate of far-right elements including France’s RN, Italy’s Lega, Austria’s Freedom party and the Netherlands’ Party for Freedom.

But it was recently expelled at the request of the RN after leading candidate Maximilian Krah became embroiled in a series of scandals – including one incident in which he suggested not all members of the Nazi SS should have been viewed as war criminals. 

Meanwhile, Meloni’s Brother of Italy refused to ally with the RN, and has instead partnered with right-wing movements from Poland, Sweden and Belgium as part of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group. 

If ID and ECR were to unite and form one right-wing bloc, they would constitute a massive political entity, second only to the centrist conglomerate European People’s Party (EPP) that is the largest force in parliament. 

The centre-right EPP is projected to win 191 of 720 seats in the EU assembly, a slight increase vs. 2019. 

But even amid such division the far-right will still wield considerable power in Europe for the next five years and will be able to push for tougher border controls, roll back restrictive and costly environmental policies, and focus on strengthening the economy of Europe. 

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen – who belongs to the EPP – seemed unperturbed by the success of the right. 

In a brief speech following last night’s election results, she acknowledged the success of far-right parties but also pointed out the good showing of the far-left – a balance she claimed only further exemplifies the power of the centre in Europe. 

‘We are by far the strongest party, We are the anchor of stability,’ von der Leyen said, adding that election results bring ‘great stability for the parties in the centre’. 

‘We all have interest in stability and we all want a strong and effective Europe,’ she said.

Indeed, von der Leyen is widely expected – though not certain – to retain her job and remain EC president for the next five years.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni reacts as she speaks to journalists about the European Parliament election at the headquarters of the Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d'Italia) in Rome, Italy, 09 June 2024

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni speaks about the results of the European Parliamentary elections at a press conference at the Fratelli d’Italia party electoral committee in Rome, Monday, June 10, 2024

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (C), leader of the Fidesz party applauds during the party's election night party after the European Parliament and local elections in Budapest, Hungary, early 10 June 2024

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (C), leader of the Fidesz party applauds during the party’s election night party after the European Parliament and local elections in Budapest, Hungary, early 10 June 2024

"Santa Giorgia", a new artwork by Alexsandro Palombo, which appeared last night on a wall in Piazza San Babila in Milan, Italy, 10 June 2024

‘Santa Giorgia’, a new artwork by Alexsandro Palombo, which appeared last night on a wall in Piazza San Babila in Milan, Italy, 10 June 2024

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (C) gestures alongside members of the Fidesz party during the EU elections, at Balna building in Budapest on June 9, 2024

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (C) gestures alongside members of the Fidesz party during the EU elections, at Balna building in Budapest on June 9, 2024

Netherlands' far-right PVV Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders poses for a selfie. The PVV came second in European elections but was the biggest winner in terms of seats gained

Netherlands’ far-right PVV Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders poses for a selfie. The PVV came second in European elections but was the biggest winner in terms of seats gained

Disaster for Greens

European elections in 2019 prompted big wins for environmentalists across the continent, but their success was clearly term-limited.

The gains of the far-right across Europe this weekend came at the expense of the Greens, who are on track to lose 19 or 20 of their 71 seats in parliament to be left with a similar share to their 2014 election tally. 

Germany, traditionally a stronghold for environmentalists, exemplified the humbling of the Greens, who fell from from 20% to 12% according to exit polls. 

Their defeat could well have an impact on the EU’s climate change policies, which have proven to be wildly unpopular in recent years amid the energy crisis and spiralling costs.

This sentiment was exemplified in recent months by Europe-wide protests by farmers angered at the burden imposed by new climate laws.

The only joy for environmentalists came in the Netherlands, where a green-left coalition managed to beat out Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom, and in the Nordics, where Greens enjoyed limited success alongside left-wing parties. 

In Sweden, the far-right Sweden Democrats, who have been gaining support for years and became the second-largest party in 2022 national elections, came in fourth place on Sunday. 

In Denmark, pro-European Union parties prevailed, with the climate-friendly Socialist People’s Party making the largest gains. They were followed by the Social Democrats and the Liberals, which are both in the government.

And in Finland, the governing conservative National Coalition Party garnered the most votes, nearly 25%. However, the Left Alliance made gains and the populist Finns Party lost its share compared to the last EU election, getting just 6%.

Support for Ukraine should hold steady 

This weekend’s election results should have little bearing on Europe’s ongoing support for Ukraine in its war against Russia, with defence and security policy largely dictated by individual nations.

The conflict on Europe’s border has also made defence and security a top priority for most European countries, and as a result the work of the European Defence Industrial Development Programme – which aims to bolster the EU member states’ defence readiness, the research and development of innovative military technologies and the manufacture of arms – is almost certain to continue unperturbed. 

Some commentators had speculated that a far-right surge in Europe’s parliament could precipitate waning support for Ukraine, but extremist elements that have openly advocated for ceasing arms deliveries to Kyiv did not gain any real ground.

Meanwhile, the staunchly pro-Ukraine EPP grew even larger, and most right-leaning parties that enjoyed success, such as Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, are also committed to providing ongoing military aid to Kyiv. 

What happens next? 

Once results are finalised in all 27 EU member states, senior party officials and number-crunchers will get together to work out what kind of groups and alliances might be formed in the parliament for the next five years.

Party presidents will then hold their first formal talks tomorrow in a process expected to take weeks.

After seven days of reflection and stock-taking, EU presidents and prime ministers will hold a summit on June 17 to discuss the results. 

One month later, MEPs will elect their president at the first plenary session, from July 16-19, before nominating the president of the European Commission.

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